We’re being presented with a false dilemma. We’re told we can either stay at home and limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, or we can get to work and try to limit the damage the virus and the shutdowns are doing to our economy.
It’s like being told that to win the war, we must lose the peace that follows.
But we don’t have to choose. We can make every effort to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the virus, and we can roll up our sleeves. In recent weeks, our nation’s focus has been fixated on our health, and that has been right and appropriate. But in coming days, we need to recognize that lasting damage is being done to our economy and we must respond accordingly.
We are more than merely our health. Homo sapiens, the creature that reasons, is also homo economicus, the creature that works to provide food, shelter, and comfort for his family.
When we emerge from our homes, what will we find? Small businesses, which employ 47.5% of our nation’s workers, have been hit particularly hard. Many restaurants and shops, with razor-thin margins, will find a stack of bills and empty cash drawers. Some may never reopen.
Larger industries, from manufacturing to distribution, will also find a brand new world, with lower demand due to falling consumer confidence, and inventories with no place to go. In the oil and gas industry, workers are weathering two storms, as Russia’s dispute with Saudi Arabia pushes prices to painful lows. Layoffs had already begun before the virus really hit.
Some companies have valiantly stepped up, retooled and produced needed emergency items ranging from hand sanitizer to ventilators. Those firms will soon need to get back to manufacturing their own products.
And much of our workforce has been displaced. Many of us are lucky enough to be able to work from home. But many others have lost time and paychecks and even jobs.
We can do this; we have a model. In 1945, the nation faced a massive demobilization. Industries were fully dedicated to the war effort. The economy was on a war footing, with rationing and an ad hoc workforce. Yet millions of men and women in uniform successfully returned to civilian life in the next two years.
It didn’t happen without a plan. As the U.S. Army’s official history records, “The small group that planned the demobilization of the World War II Army had to return to the United States the largest number of individuals this country had ever mobilized.”
Yet, “by the time the German signatories surrendered to the Supreme Commander of the Western Group of Allies at Rheims in May 1945, the United States had plans” in place.
The result wasn’t merely a return to normalcy, it was a race to new heights. We saw a boom of industry, of construction, of prosperity, and, yes, of babies.
The comparison is appropriate. When World War II ended, a little more than 10 million Americans were demobilized. About a third of that number (3.28 million) applied for unemployment just last week.
Clearly, the time to start planning is now.
What will that look like? As Rep. Chip Roy points out, we must set a date certain for an end to the most restrictive (and economically crippling) measures. That will remove one major source of uncertainty (and uncertainty, we know, is an economy-killer in and of itself). We can continue to guard our most vulnerable citizens and practice common sense efforts ourselves, but we can plan to get back to work.
For their part, our leaders at all levels (national, state and local) should transition from being issuers of edicts to cheerleaders on the sidelines.
And by the way, all those regulations we’ve lifted for the duration of the crisis? We should think twice before enacting them again. If we didn’t need them during a pandemic, we won’t need them when things are fine.
The crisis isn’t over. But eventually, it will be. We must be ready when people can finally get back to work.